Remember that great idea you had at work? You knew it would make a huge difference for the company and its customers, that it would pay dividends long into the future.
You pitched it to your boss, or to the C-suite. You put everything you had into it. But they just yawned. Nobody caught your enthusiasm. Worse, when a different, shiny idea caught their eyes, they forgot all about your idea and backed that one instead.
Seth Godin provided some answers in his blog this past Super Bowl Sunday. Seth examined why cities spend hundreds of millions on stadiums while projects with a better return on investment — like building roads, improving education, or investing in technology — go wanting.
Learn the dynamics of corporate decision making
Seth sees 5 dynamics at play in decision making at the city or state level. I’m convinced that they also bear on your situation at work.
- The project is now. It’s yes or no. There are no subtle nuances, no debating the pros and cons for years. We either build the stadium, or our team moves to Vegas.
- The project is specific, easy to visualize — in contrast with, say, “investing in technology,” which each person is likely to visualize differently.
- The end is in sight. When you build a stadium, the stadium opens and games are played. With other projects, it’s often harder to visualize the end state.
- People in power and people with power will benefit. Enough said.
- There’s a tribal patriotism at work. “What do you mean you don’t support our city?”
So what was your idea? Were you proposing that the writing team embrace structured authoring? Did you want the company to adopt a content strategy?
Why did your bosses toss your idea aside? Maybe you didn’t frame it in a way that took the 5 dynamics into account.
Make your idea fly
How can you improve your odds when it’s time to sell your next idea? Ask yourself these questions.
- Is it clear cut? Can I create an unambiguous, shared vision in everyone’s mind of what will happen if my idea is adopted — versus what will happen if it isn’t?
- Can they visualize the results? It might help to tell a story: meet Joe, who just bought our product. Here’s how my idea will improve his life and turn him into a more loyal customer. Or here’s Sally in Tech Pubs, and here’s how she’ll be able to create better content for Joe and others like him.
- Is the end in sight? Can I describe what the results will look like in a year, or in 2 years? Or am I trying to sell something that brings only gradual improvement? Similarly, can I describe the win criteria: what specific things need to happen for this project to be measured as successful?
- What’s in it for the executives? This might go against my altruistic nature, but the bosses won’t really listen (although they might pretend to) unless they see some benefit, tangible or intangible, for them.
- Am I appealing to company spirit? Can I paint a picture of customers waving banners with the company logo, or of the CEO on a stage talking up this idea before a cheering audience?
Try framing your next idea around these dynamics, and you might see a better result. Because people are people, whether they’re a city council or the C-suite at a corporation.
Don’t give up
You’re probably thinking: my idea can’t score on all of these criteria. By necessity, it’s a long-term solution with no clear-cut success criteria. Or it addresses issues that are internal, “under the hood” — nothing that the CEO would ever talk about onstage.
In that case, go ahead and pitch your idea anyway. Just be aware of the forces that are at work, and be willing to address them. “I know this isn’t something we’ll be able to tout to our customers. But you (Mr. or Ms. CEO) will have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve made your employees happier.”
Seth, unfortunately, used the word losers in the title of his post. He was saying, I think, that basing decisions on those 5 dynamics is a losing proposition — that cities would see better outcomes (better infrastructure, better education, better quality of life) if they could get past the limitations imposed by the 5 dynamics.
I look at it differently. I prefer to say that Seth has shed light on some basic aspects of human nature. Rather than simply abandoning our less-than-shiny ideas, we can succeed when we understand those aspects and turn them to our advantage.
What do you think? Has Seth given you a way to bring your ideas to fruition, or has he convinced you that your ideas will never gain traction?
Can you share a story of when you got an idea approved by appealing to these aspects of human nature?